Voters in Kenosha County, Jefferson County and a handful of other counties and municipalities in Wisconsin are seeing a question on their Nov. 3 general election ballot asking about redistricting, or the redrawing of political maps.
The advisory referendum asks:
Should the Wisconsin legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of all district maps at all levels of government: federal, state, county and municipal in the State of Wisconsin?
Every state has to go through the redistricting process based on the new numbers for the decennial census, but how it is done varies from state to state.
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing political districts in a manner that favors one political party. In recent elections, voters in 17 Wisconsin counties, and in more than a dozen municipalities, have spoken out against the process. They've answered an advisory question on whether the Legislature should ban gerrymandering and adopt a process of independent, nonpartisan redistricting. In every county the question was posed, voters answered with an overwhelming "yes."
Jay Heck is director of the nonpartisan organization Common Cause Wisconsin. Heck forms part of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, the group behind the advisory referendum that is appearing before another 11 counties and 3 municipalities on Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Heck says, "We're confident that they will all pass with striking margins, usually in the vicinity of two thirds or more."
But even if the resoultion does pass it is nonbinding. Meaning that it would not result in any immediate policy changes. In Wisconsin, the state constitution gives the Legislature sole power to draw political maps. And, the governor can approve or veto the maps.
With that power, time and time again, the Legislature has drawn maps that help them keep political power, explains Milwaukee lawyer Joseph Bukowski.
“The inherent danger with relying on representatives to draw lines is that, you know, they're the ones who benefit from it, so they can tailor it to how they want,” he says.
The Republican-controlled Legislature has no plans to change its map-making process, signaling it will move forward with its own maps in 2021. In an effort to propose an alternate set of maps with the aim to avoid gerrymandering, Gov. Tony Evers created a Nonpartisan Redistricting Commission to draw a new set of legislative maps for Wisconsin following the 2020 census. The announcement was immediately met with criticism by Republican leaders.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the plan “phony” and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the maps would be “unconstitutional."
Organizations pushing for a new process — including through the advisory referendum — say public opinion plays a pivotal role.
“It enables voters to be able to, in a very real way, express their opinion through these referendums that are on the ballots. The reason that's important is that, that can be translated into political pressure,” Heck explains.
And political pressure can change lawmakers' minds. Take former Republican State Sen. Dale Schultz from Richland Center.
“Then I realized that we had invented a process that was thwarting the will of voters and being sensitive to how voters feel, and about how frustrated they were getting. I decided it was time to do something about it,” he says.
Schultz, supports a non-partisan redistricting plan. He’s optimistic for Ever’s commission.
“I'm hoping that the commission will do its work, will be very educational for the people of this state," says Schultz, "and draw a map to demonstrate, what a fair map looks like."
If Republicans move forward in 2021 with their own maps, Evers could veto them, and the maps would end up before a state court with judges redrawing the boundaries.